The past few weeks have not been the most glorious for the Garda Commissioner or for GSOC. While the public was understandably shocked at the alleged illegal surveillance of GSOC, people were also very disturbed at the very public tensions between Ireland's most senior garda and the three-person Garda Ombudsman Commission.
That a healthy tension should exist between these two important state organisations is not in question. GSOC would be doing something wrong in its role of policing watchdog if it had a cosy relationship with senior gardai. But clearly that is far from the situation. There is a feeling that trust has broken down between these two arms of our policing system.
It probably goes even deeper than a lack of trust. There are fundamental structural flaws in the senior management and system of oversight of our garda force. These can in part be traced back to the drafting of the Garda Siochana Act 2005.
The Justice Minister, in handing over the legislation to the Justice Committee for review, has initiated the debate on how to improve the regulation of Ireland's policing structure. Over the coming months the committee will review the legislation and make recommendations for change.
There is a strong case for the committee to consider an alternative reporting arrangement for the Garda Commissioner. The current one of reporting directly to the Justice Minister has both procedural and public-perception difficulties. From a simply administrative viewpoint, what CEO of a 13,000-person corporation reports to a board of just one?
I have already said in the Dail that I would prefer to see the Garda Commissioner report to a skilled policing board, possibly chaired by a member of the judiciary. This will no doubt be one of a range of possible structures the Justice Committee could consider.
I will be encouraging fellow members of the Justice Committee to agree to invite submissions and presentations from members of the public, gardai, NGOs, the legal community and also representatives from best-practice policing systems internationally.
What has been clear over the past weeks of the GSOC controversy, and for a while before that, has been the need to strengthen the independence and powers of GSOC. At this stage there can be no opposition to granting the garda watchdog free access to the Pulse information system. Within a review of the legislation of the type envisaged, there will be scope to define within the law the information, at a minimum, that GSOC is entitled to and the time-frames within which it must be provided by complainants and by garda headquarters.
I think most people agree that GSOC should retain its independent status under the act. What we have seen over the past few weeks is a lack of clarity over the arrangements for reporting and not reporting important information. One of the functions of GSOC in the legislation as currently worded is to report matters to the Garda Commissioner. This is a part of the legislation that will need to be carefully examined.
GSOC is currently accountable to the Oireachtas and must address certain Oireachtas committees if requested to do so. There is scope for re-examining the Oireachtas reporting relationship in this review.
In relation to complaints from members of the public, the focus has to be redirected from what currently feels like an overly defensive position by the gardai to one of customer relations and the respect of basic human rights. Everyone is sensitive to complaints about their work and, in the case of the difficult work that gardai carry out, it is of course likely that a percentage of complaints will be vexatious. Given the high number of gardai in the force, it is likely that some members will not be as conscientious as others and events will arise that lead to complaints.
Prompt and proper investigation of these complaints, if appropriate, leading to prosecutions and with due respect for the rights of all parties involved, is the work of GSOC. Internal discipline procedures are a matter for garda management. It is difficult for people to understand why ordinary garda members can be subject to investigation by GSOC but their chief cannot. The issue of whether the Garda Commissioner role should be open to investigation by GSOC will be encountered during the legislative review.
I have the highest regard for individual gardai. The Garda Siochana Act doesn't describe half of the functions that gardai carry out. No words in legislation could describe the scenes of carnage on our roads or other tragic scenes that gardai are asked to manage as part of their role. Luckily most of us encounter members of the garda force under more benign circumstance, like the signing of a passport form or asking directions on a street.
The controversy over the cancellation of penalty points highlighted the seemingly high number of people who had approached gardai to ask for the withdrawal of points applied for road traffic offences. What most of these individuals fail to realise is that under the Garda Act, Section 59 to be precise, the person who approaches a garda with a view to inducing him or her to withdraw points may well be committing a far more serious offence that could result in a five-year prison sentence or a fine of up to €5,000. I suspect that if there was a keener awareness of this little-known part of our legislation, far fewer people would have been lobbying gardai to have points removed.
Ireland has a police force to be proud of. The focus of the upcoming legislative review by the Justice Committee will be to protect what is good about the policing systems and to improve on those parts of the legislation that have contributed to the recent debacle.
ANNE FERRIS IS THE VICE-CHAIR OF THE OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE ON JUSTICE, DEFENCE AND EQUALITY AND LABOUR TD FOR WICKLOW EAST CARLOW.